Image: Publicity photo from the game show Twenty Questions, 1954
California State University-Channel Islands is hiring a premodern European historian. The online job ad requires all the usual documents: CV, cover letter, teaching statement, and syllabi examples. Midway through the application process, however, surprises lurk.
First, there’s a spot to upload a writing sample, even though no writing sample is required. The university wants scanned teaching evaluations, but allows only up to 2 megabytes of data. Worst of all, as a candidate works through the online application, nine mini-essay questions with text boxes pop up with no warning. If you want to be considered as a candidate for this job — one of a relatively small number of positions open for a pre-1848 Europeanist — you’d better get writing.
We all know the supply of Ph.D.s looking for full-time work vastly outstrips the available pool of full-time jobs, and academia is struggling for solutions to that macro problem. But one thing we could do: Make the process of locating, applying for, and tracking jobs far more humane. I’ve already advocated that we put an end to costly in-person first-round interviews, move the date on which governing boards vote on an appointment to earlier in the hiring cycle, and formalize the hiring of adjuncts in order to treat them like the professionals they are.
The Cal State job ad points to yet another solvable problem: hyperspecificity in the application requirements.
When departments get creative — demanding content beyond the three basics: cover letter, CV, and three letters of recommendation — they are piling pointless labor on already overworked candidates. The three basics are sufficient to determine whether a candidate should go from the slush pile to the long list; moreover, almost no one is reading all of this stuff.
Those nine essay questions the Cal State department expects candidates to answer are a case in point:
- What do you think about the CSUCI mission statement?
- If you are a new Ph.D., briefly describe the topic, significance, and publication plans of your dissertation.
- If you are not a new Ph.D., describe your current research project(s), significance, and plans for publication.
- Please list those courses you would like to teach at CSUCI in the future.
- What makes you a good candidate to work at a young university with plans for rapid growth?
- Please explain how your career exemplifies the teacher-scholar model.
- Describe one innovative idea that you implemented that enhanced student learning or success, and why you think it was so successful.
- Please describe your experience with and commitment to interdisciplinarity including what it means to you.
- Please describe your commitment to working with diverse populations, including how you would define "diversity."
Professors and administrators at the university defend their process. Elizabeth Hartung, the assistant provost at CSUCI who oversees faculty hiring, noted that four of the questions are asked of all job candidates universitywide and are “indicative of the values of the institution.” It’s not unreasonable, she said, to ask all candidates to answer them.
When running a search, CSUCI programs can choose to add additional questions. “While reflecting on these questions may require more effort from a candidate,” Hartung said, “the responses are helpful in identifying those candidates that will best fit our mission and that are more likely to be successful here.” Jim Meriwether, chair of history at the university, added, “With this process in place, over the years we've been able to hire an extraordinary and talented faculty across the campus as we build this relatively young university.”
I’m sure he’s right: CSUCI faculty are great. In this job market, every search should yield an abundance of great candidates. That’s the privilege of being a buyer in a buyer’s market. Moreover, I recognize that both the administrators and the faculty add these questions with the best intentions, not only for their search, but to safeguard the public’s money and demonstrate due process to state lawmakers.
But I can’t help but be skeptical that the search committee for this position is truly reading all the material it requires candidates to submit. Let’s assume 300 people apply for the job — a figure not unheard of in this market. Is the search committee really going to read 2,700 mini-essays in addition to 300 CVs, 300 cover letters, 300 teaching statements, and more than 300 sample syllabi? Probably not, but candidates must pretend that every word of their essays matter.
I decided to ask some actual job candidates how they felt about being confronted with these surprise pop-up essay questions. Their emailed responses (offered anonymously for obvious reasons) ranged from amused disbelief to disdain to anger.
- Candidate A: “I finished three applications Sunday night and the Channel Islands was the last one I completed and I admit that when I hit the special questions I had a ‘LOL, WUT?’ moment. I was not bothered by the questions, you could quit the application and restart later (everything was saved). I think I was more amused than anything because it seemed like the application was done and you just had to upload your supporting materials and then BOOM, the page with the questions appeared.”
- Candidate B: “I spent a bit less than an hour on the essays, primarily because (a) given the university’s mission statement and the department’s explicit presentism, it’s extremely unlikely they’ll hire [me], and (b) asking all those extra questions is BS. I definitely could’ve spent longer, but law of diminishing returns or whatever.”
- Candidate C: “To have confronted such questions only as part of the application process — i.e., no warning in the official job listing — felt like an ambush. More important, the questions came across as unreasonable and absurd. We will get these exact questions in any interview process. Why demand that applicants obsess over the precise wording of nine additional essays that likely no one will read, that we will be asked anyway in an interview, but which applicants will spend well over an hour on each?”
In fact, the nine questions are exactly the type of questions you normally face in a first-round interview. The topics — fit, teaching, research — are also exactly what you should address in a competent cover letter. CSCUI’s mission statement matching global citizenship to the knowledge and skills acquired in the course of pursuing a degree is lovely, but it’s not especially unusual. All universities emphasize diversity, and asking for a definition feels like a trap. As a professor at a teaching-oriented campus myself, I know the importance of finding colleagues who have some idea of how to integrate a research agenda with a passionate commitment to teaching, but I expect to find out enough in a cover letter to know if a follow up is appropriate.
CSCUI is far from alone in asking candidates to jump through too many hoops early in the hiring process.
Jeremy Yoder recently wrote, with remarkable equanimity, about the hoops through which he must jump to apply for jobs in the sciences. Meanwhile I doubt that members of a search committee in history at the University of Calgary are actually going to read “up to four” samples of scholarly work from its hundreds of candidates. Sometimes an application requirement that seeks to limit the amount of material a candidate supplies can also lead to unnecessary busy work: For example, the University of North Carolina at Asheville’s request of a “one-page cover letter” means that hundreds of English Ph.D.s are going to spend time cutting the standard two-page cover letter in half, fretting endlessly while they do so.
We need to stop asking applicants to waste time on hyper-specific requirements. A cover letter, a CV, and letters of recommendation delivered by a folio service (to save time for the letter writers) should be enough in all normal circumstances to determine whether a candidate makes a first-round cut. Search committees should use the basic application materials to make the cut — and then get specific.
We are all complicit in a system that trains far too many graduate students for far too few full-time jobs. As I watch people struggle through the hiring process, I am always struck by how much we could ameliorate the stress and anxiety with just a few simple courtesies — timely communication, clarity about requirements, and no surprises. We could make it a little less awful.
None of us, individually, can fix the job market. That’s no excuse for making things worse.
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